Lichtenberg, Georg Christoph (1742–1799)

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Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, the German satirist, scientist, and philosopher, studied mathematics and science at the University of Göttingen and was a professor there from 1767 to the end of his life. On two occasions Lichtenberg visited England. His impressions from these visits are recorded in his diaries and letters.

Lichtenberg's original contributions to mathematics and to pure and experimental science are not of great importance. The Lichtenberg figure in the theory of electricity was named after him. He was very successful as a teacher; among his pupils were Alexander von Humboldt and Christian Gauss. It has been said that his fame as a lecturer and demonstrator surpassed that of any other German scientist of his time.

His literary reputation with his contemporaries rested mainly on his satirical criticism of the writers of the Sturm und Drang movement and of the Swiss clergyman Johann Lavater's quasi-scientific psychology of character. Lichtenberg's own favorites and models in art were Englishmen: William Shakespeare; David Garrick, the actor; and William Hogarth, the painter. His analyses and descriptions of Garrick on the stage and his detailed "explanations" of Hogarth's etchings have become famous. Most of Lichtenberg's literary output during his lifetime appeared in two periodicals, of which he was the editor, the Göttinger Taschen-Calender and the Göttingisches Magazin der Wissenschaften und Litteratur.

By far the most valuable part of Lichtenberg's literary work, however, consisted of his "aphorisms," or scattered thoughts on psychological, philosophical, scientific, and many other topics. They were written down in notebooks but were never systematically arranged by the author. Nor were they used as raw material to any great extent for the more systematic work that Lichtenberg was constantly planning but never carried out. Vermischte Schriften, a comprehensive selection of his remarks, was published soon after his death.

Philosophically, Lichtenberg was not attached to any school or movement. The thinkers who made the deepest impressions on him were Benedict de Spinoza and Immanuel Kant. It is noteworthy that Lichtenberg was an early reviver of the great Jewish philosopher and one of the first to understand and acknowledge the revolutionary significance of Kant's transcendental philosophy. Furthermore, the versatility of his philosophical intellect is shown by his acute understanding of the work of Jakob Boehme.

Lichtenberg has had but a modest influence on the development of thought, but it is evident from the observations of Kant and Alexander von Humboldt, among others, that his contemporaries greatly prized his philosophical intellect. Subsequent generations were first made aware of his status as an independent thinker through the observation of Ernst Mach (in his The Analysis of Sensations ) that Lichtenberg had anticipated the empiriocritical solution of the ego problem with his critique of the Cartesian cogito ergo sum. (In another work, "Die Leitgedanken meiner naturwissenschaftlichen Erkenntnislehre" [The primary ideas of my scientific epistemology], 1919, p. 5, Mach even hinted that he had been influenced by Lichtenberg.) Moreover, the affinity of Lichtenberg's ideas with modern linguistic philosophy has been indicated by various writers, for example, Friedrich Waismann in the preface to Moritz Schlick's Gesammelte Aufsätze and Richard von Mises in Positivism.

Philosophy of Mathematics

Lichtenberg, in contradistinction to Kant, distinguished sharply between pure and applied mathematics and separated mathematics as a logicodeductive formalism from mathematics as a theory of reality.

The truths of pure mathematics are not only certain in a strict sense but are derived (in principle) independently of experience and empirical observation. A blind man, for instance, could discover the laws of light by means of the calculus, for as soon as the fundamental facts of refraction and reflection are discovered experimentally, "the whole of dioptrics and catoptrics becomes a purely geometrical problem," which can be treated without further knowledge of natural processes. For this reason the ideal form of a scientific theory is that of a logicodeductive system. Lichtenberg stated: "The aim of the physicists is to prepare the way for mathematics."

In his conception of pure mathematics, Lichtenberg approached the notion of the analytical, or tautological, character of mathematical truths. He did not take a positive stand on Kant's view of the synthetic a priori character of mathematics, but it is evident from his remarks that he viewed it with suspicion.

Mathematics shapes its own world. The business of the physicist is to decide which "of the innumerable suppositions possible" is the single true one. The results of mathematical deduction cannot be asserted in advance to agree with the results of physical inquiry. "Their agreement is a purely empirical coincidence, nothing else." (It is apparent from his manuscript that Lichtenberg ascribed great importance to this remark.) Thus Lichtenberg renounced all a priori claims concerning the application of mathematics to reality.

Instead of being astounded at the actual success of mathematics in the exploration of natural phenomena, Lichtenberg emphasized the approximate character of mathematical laws of nature and warned of the temptation to read more mathematics into things than is actually there. "All mathematical laws that we find in nature, despite their beauty, are doubtful to me." The forms in which nature covers herself are too manifold and changeable to be comprehended exhaustively by our own conceptual apparatus. These thoughts, which had come early to Lichtenberg, were closely connected with his highly developed talent for observation and his acute feeling for the concrete.

It is characteristic that the work with which Lichtenberg qualified for his professorship was devoted to the study of an alleged discrepancy between theory and experience. This work, "Considerations about Some Methods for Removing a Certain Difficulty in the Calculation of Probability in Gambling" (not mentioned in J. M. Keynes's bibliography in his Treatise on Probability ), concerned a famous problem of the theory of probability, the so-called Petersburg paradox, which engaged many leading mathematicians of the eighteenth century, among others, Jean Le Rond d'Alembert and Daniel Bernoulli. It is erroneous, however, to see in this problem, as Lichtenberg and others have done, a contradiction between the mathematical calculus and the actual course of events.

Recognition is due Lichtenberg for his scientific genius in being one of the first to see the possibility of denying, without contradiction, the Euclidean axioms. That between two points only one straight line can be drawn is indeed an accepted axiom, but it is by no means necessary. One can also conceive of the possibility that several distinct lines might pass through the same two points. The manner in which Lichtenberg attempted to show this possibility was, indeed, less significant: He imagined one could take arcs with the radii , 2, 3, and so on, so that they proceed through two fixed points, describing distinct straight lines.

Interestingly enough, Lichtenberg also expressed some thoughts about the deflection of light through gravitation. As an adherent of Isaac Newton's corpuscular theory, he assumed that light has mass, from which it follows that a beam of light must deviate from a straight path because of its weight. "Light alone appears to be an exception (viz., to the curved path of most bodies); however, since it is probably heavy, it will be deflected as a result."

Epistemology of the Exact Sciences

Lichtenberg realized the great significance of the discovery of structural identities among qualitatively different domains of theoretical research into nature. His idea of paradigmata (patterns), according to which processes were to be "declined," seems to have approached James Clerk Maxwell's view of the significance of analogy and to have anticipated the concept of isomorphism. Lichtenberg called discovery through paradigmata the most fruitful of all the heuristic devices of science. As an example of an application he suggested that one might use Newton's Optics as a model in the theory of the calcination of metals.

Lichtenberg had a clear view of the logic of constructing hypotheses: "If we want to understand nature," he said, "we must begin with sensible appearances." Hypotheses that transcend the evidence of the senses may only be constructed insofar as they can be tested within the domain of appearances. Concepts whose presence or absence in the individual case can never be demonstrated but only assumed are not permissible in science. The concept of ether in physics belongs to this category. The ether, which "no one has seen or felt, condensed, rarefied, etc., " is like the notion of the world soul: Since it has no experiential consequences, it must be eliminated once and for all from a rational physics.

In spite of his opposition in principle to hypothesis making in physics, Lichtenberg did not agree with the view that all assumptions should be discarded if, although they have testable consequences, they do not literally correspond to sensible reality. Assumptions of this kind may nonetheless be useful as pictures of complicated courses of events, and thus facilitate the application of mathematics to nature. (The notion of "picture," reminiscent of Heinrich Hertz's Principles of Mechanics, turns up often in Lichtenberg.) "If someone could make a clock that presented the movements of the heavenly bodies as exactly as actually obtains, would he not deserve much credit, even though the world does not operate by means of cog-wheels? Through this machine he could discover many things that he would not have believed to be present in it." In addition to such mechanical models, the two theories of light and atomic theory also belong to this category.

The truth content of scientific assumptions of the type mentioned above is proportional to their explanatory power and to their relative simplicity. Lichtenberg quite aptly noted that with theories as complex as that of light "it can no longer be merely a question of what is true, but of what manner of explanation is the simplest." And he added, "The door to truth is through simplicity." Moreover, his speculation that one could attempt to combine the corpuscular and wave theories sounds very modern.

The falsification of such hypotheses can not be established beyond question by empirical circumstances. A single negative instance does not in general make it necessary to renounce a comprehensive scientific theory that has otherwise been well confirmed. "One should take special note of contradictory experiences," wrote Lichtenberg, "until there are enough of them to make constructing a new system worthwhile."

Soul and Matter, Realism and Idealism

Early in his career Lichtenberg rejected the idea of the soul as a substance. Before enough was understood to explain the phenomena of the world scientifically, spirits were accepted as explanations of phenomena. As our knowledge of the physical world increased, however, the boundaries of the spiritual realm shrank until finally "that which haunts our body and produces effects in it" was the only thing left that required a ghost for an explanation. The case of the "soul" is like that of phlogiston: In the end both substances dissipate into nothingness. What remains is a "bare word" comparable to the word state (Zustand ), to which, however, one may at least attribute heuristic value as a picture and as a type of idea innate in the human being.

According to Lichtenberg, the thesis of materialism is "the asymptote of psychology." In psychology, he linked himself closely with the materialistic-mechanistic association theories of the Englishmen David Hartley and Joseph Priestley. A one-to-one correspondence obtains between the mental occurrence and the state of the brain, so that the former can, in principle, be inferred from the latter.

Lichtenberg, however, did not accept metaphysical materialism. Parallel with his critique of the concept of the soul went a critique of the concept of matter. Soul and inert matter are mere abstractions, he wrote in a letter in 1786; we know of matter and of soul only on the basis of the forces (Kräfte ) through which they manifest themselves and "with which they are identical." We postulate for these forces in one case "an inert receptacle and call it matter." Through such a hypostatization, which is just a "chimera" of the brain, arises "the infamous dualism in the world": the division of being into body and soul, spirit and matter. But in reality everything is one.

This acknowledgment of monism still bore a metaphysical character. It is probable that the influence of Spinoza had its effect on the position taken by Lichtenberg in 1786, since the letter of that year referred directly to Spinoza. But we may observe that, much earlier, Lichtenberg had expressed the same opinion almost word for word. However, it is not impossible that the influence of Spinoza was already at work then. Even in his earliest books of aphorisms there were remarks of a Spinozistic character, although the name of the great thinker was not mentioned.

Later, Lichtenberg's monism took a more epistemological turn in that he clearly indicated how the basis of his monistic system should be interpreted. "We are aware only of the existence of our sensations, ideas, and thought," he said and expressed the same thought with the words, "Everything is feeling (Gefühle )." We experience a part of our impressions as dependent upon us, another as independent of the perceiving subject: in this way we arrive at the difference between the inner and outer worlds.

To argue from sensations to an "ego" as their bearer, as René Descartes does, is not logically warranted. Lichtenberg remarked very perceptively: "One should say, 'There is thinking,' just as one says, 'There is lightning.'" To say cogito is to say too much; for as soon as one translates it as "I think," it seems necessary to postulate an ego. Lichtenberg's earlier critique of the idea of the soul culminates here in a critique of the self, somewhat reminiscent of the position of David Hume.

It took considerable effort on Lichtenberg's part to attain clarity on the question of how we proceed from our sensations to things outside us. He perceived the significance of the problem from his study of Kant, and in his treatment of it we can generally discern Kant's influence.

At first it was very difficult for Lichtenberg to rid himself of the idea that something in the actual world might correspond to our representations, although we can have "no conception at all of the true nature of the outside world." But later he recognized that the question "whether things outside ourselves really exist and exist as we see them" is in fact "completely meaningless." It is just as foolish as asking whether the color blue is really blue. We are compelled by our naturethis compulsion he termed, with Kant, die Form der Sinnlichkeit (form of sensibility)to express ourselves in such way that we speak of certain objects of our perception as being outside ourselves and of others as being within us. "What is outside? What are objects praeter nos? What is the force of the preposition praeter? It is a purely human invention; a name to indicate a difference from other things which we call 'not-praeter nos. '" "There is probably no one in the world who does not perceive this difference, and probably no such person will ever exist; and for philosophy that is enough. Philosophy need not go beyond this."

Is not this standpoint "idealism"? Lichtenberg clearly perceived that, just as his critique of the idea of the "soul" did not result in metaphysical materialism, so his attitude toward the question of the reality of the outer world should not be confused with metaphysical idealism. Rather his doctrine stood beyond idealism and materialism in their traditional senses. "It is truly of little consequence to me whether one wants to label this idealism. Names have no significance. It is at least an idealism which, through idealism, acknowledges that there are things outside us." What more can one ask? For human beings, "at least for the philosophical ones," there is no other reality than the one so constituted. It is true that one is satisfied in ordinary life with some other, "lower station," but whenever one begins to philosophize, one cannot but accept this enlightened point of view. "There is no other alternative," he concluded.

Lichtenberg's Conception of Philosophy

"Our entire philosophy," wrote Lichtenberg, "is a correction of linguistic usage." What he meant by that is especially evident in his treatment of the question of realism. As indicated above, Lichtenberg's conception should not be understood as an attempt to deny the existence of things outside ourselves. That would have been a senseless undertaking. His intention was only to discover the meaning of the distinction between outer and inner objects by clearly presenting the facts that underlie this distinction. It turns out that the root of the traditional difficulty about the question of realism is that in ordinary life we attach a contradictory meaning to the expression "outside ourselves." When we have become conscious of this contradiction and have undertaken the proper correction of our linguistic usage, the difficulty vanishes of itself.

Philosophy, then, is a critique of language. Its goal, however, is not definitions of concepts. Lichtenberg was not of the opinion that one could, for philosophical use, replace the common language with an ideal language, perhaps in the sense of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz's characteristica universalis. Attempts to reform the nomenclature of the sciences did not find much favor with him. "To clarify words does not help," he said. Why? Because the interpretation of the clarified concepts takes place, in the final analysis, in the vernacular. But the vernacular, by its nature, is imbued with our false philosophy. The rectification of colloquial usage, which leads to true philosophy, is thus undertaken in the language of false philosophy: "We are therefore constantly teaching true philosophy with the language of the false one." The common philosophy, then, always maintains a certain superiority over the enlightened one, for the former is in possession of the "declensions and conjugations" of our language, and these are not changed by the clarification of meanings of words. "The invention of language preceded philosophy, and it is just this that makes philosophy difficult, particularly when one wishes to make it understandable to those who do not think much for themselves. Philosophy, whenever it speaks, is forced to speak the language of nonphilosophy. Pure philosophy still imperceptibly enjoys the pleasure of love with the impure (and cannot avoid doing so)."

The philosopher, then, speaks with the words of the common language about things that are beyond it. He is thus compelled to express himself, to a certain degree, in metaphors (Gleichnissen ). He is supposed to direct our attention with his sentences to the false logic of our language, so that we learn to see the world correctly. He does not teach us a new language but helps us to express ourselves clearly with our own. "The peasant," said Lichtenberg, "uses all the sentences of the most abstract philosophy, only they are entangled, hidden, confined, latent, as the physicist and chemist say; the philosopher gives us the pure sentences."

It should be evident from the above that Lichtenberg anticipated the conception of philosophy that has been represented in the twentieth century by Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein knew Lichtenberg's work well and esteemed it highly. It is hardly possible, however, to speak of Lichtenberg as an influence on the philosophy of Wittgenstein. Nevertheless, a rare congeniality between the two men can be notednot only in view of their conceptions of philosophy but also in view of their entire intellectual talents and temperaments.

See also Alembert, Jean Le Rond d'; Boehme, Jakob; Descartes, René; Hartley, David; Idealism; Kant, Immanuel; Keynes, John Maynard; Lavater, Johann Kaspar; Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm; Mach, Ernst; Materialism; Mathematics, Foundations of; Maxwell, James Clerk; Newton, Isaac; Priestley, Joseph; Schlick, Moritz; Spinoza, Benedict (Baruch) de; Wittgenstein, Ludwig Josef Johann.


Lichtenberg's works in German include Vermischte Schriften, edited by L. C. Lichtenberg and F. Kries, 5 vols. (Göttingen: Dieterich, 18001803); Physikalische und mathematische Schriften, edited by L. C. Lichtenberg and F. Kries, 4 vols. (Göttingen, 18031806); Neue Original-Ausgabe, 14 vols. (Göttingen, 18441853); Aus Lichtenbergs Nachlass, edited by Albert Leitzmann (Weimar, 1899); Aphorismen, nach den Handschriften, edited by Albert Leitzmann, 5 vols. (Berlin, 19021908); Lichtenbergs Briefe, edited by Albert Leitzmann and Carl Schüddelkopf, 3 vols. (Leipzig, 19011904).

Lichtenberg's remarks on questions of mathematics and physics have been printed only in part. It is most unfortunate that all of his notes from the years 17791788 and the greater part of those from 17931796, which existed at the time of the first edition of the Vermischte Schriften, had been lost when Albert Leitzmann, in the beginning of the twentieth century, edited the Aphorismen, nach den Handschriften. This loss greatly complicates the task of reconstructing the course of development of Lichtenberg's thought. The selection of aphorisms in the Vermischte Schriften shows that some of his most important philosophical remarks were among those subsequently lost.

For literature on Lichtenberg, see J. Dostal-Winkler, Lichtenberg und Kant (Munich, 1924); P. Hahn, Georg Christoph Lichtenberg und die exakten Wissenschaften (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 1927); F. H. Mautner, "Amintors Morgenandacht," in Deutsche Vierteljahrschrift für Litteraturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte 30 (1956); F. H. Mautner and F. Miller, "Remarks on G. C. Lichtenberg, Humanist-Scientist," in Isis 43 (1952); A. Neumann, "Lichtenberg als Philosoph und seine Beziehungen zu Kant," in Kantstudien 4 (1900); A. Schneider, Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, précurseur du romantisme, Vol. I, L'homme et l'oeuvre, Vol. II, Le penseur (Nancy, 1954); J. P. Stern, Lichtenberg: A Doctrine of Scattered Occasions (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1959); and G. H. von Wright, "Georg Christoph Lichtenberg als Philosoph," Theoria 8 (1942): 201217, of which the present entry is an adaptation.

Georg Henrik von Wright (1967)

Translated by David H. DeGrood and

Barry J. Karp

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Lichtenberg, Georg Christoph (1742–1799)

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